Now What?

Six ways Obama can show he’ll be a different kind of president.

CHICAGO—Barack Obama has said he wants to change the political system. Now that he is president-elect, we’ll see what that actually means. As he works to remove the troops from Iraq, reform the nation’s health care system, and promote American energy independence, we’ll see how well he keeps his promise to reach out to others with different ideas. He once promised that negotiations about his health care plan would be shown live on C-SPAN. Is he really going to be that transparent?

It may take some time before we know these answers. But some indications of Obama’s new kind of politics could come before he starts making policy decisions. In his acceptance speech, Obama plans to offer some symbolic gestures, such as reaching out to Republicans and not appearing overly celebratory. This is a good start, but there’s more he could do. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Embrace John McCain. As the campaign wound to a close, Obama was already saying nicer things about McCain. Behind the scenes, he was also pulling back. According to one aide, when campaign strategists said they thought Obama had a shot at being competitive in Arizona and that they should run ads there, he personally insisted that only positive ads be aired. “I don’t want to put my foot on his neck,” said Obama, according to the aide’s paraphrasing.

Obama should go beyond the graciousness he’ll no doubt show McCain in his acceptance speech. He should pledge to meet with McCain soon. This gesture would do several things: It would show graciousness in victory, which is an attractive quality in a president. It would also show that President-elect Obama is open to hearing ideas he disagrees with, and it would open the door to a man who could be an ally in the years ahead. And from McCain’s standpoint, there are certainly benefits to reviving his brand as a bipartisan maverick at the end of his career. He won’t be able to do that as a Mitch McConnell obstructionist; better to be a senator who is willing to work with the new administration. Obama could ease that transition by testifying to McCain’s honor.

2. Appoint Republicans. Obama and his top strategist, David Axelrod, have repeatedly talked about getting past the red-state/blue-state paradigm, and the senator has reflected more than once on Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet, famously described as a “Team of Rivals.” He should turn his admiration into practice. There are several possible options. He could appoint Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana as secretary of state. He could appoint Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska ambassador to the United Nations. (Hagel, who wants out of the Senate, is a foreign-policy expert and wants to someday make money in the private sector.) Obama could also appoint Colin Powell to head his national service initiative or some other high-profile, nonmilitary project.

3. Work without pay. Obama has talked about a new era of sacrifice and has also promised to go through the budget “line by line,” cutting out unnecessary programs. If he were to work without pay, he would show that he was doing his part. He can afford it: Obama’s books have made him a wealthy man. And his next books will make him even wealthier.

4. Increase disclosure and transparency. Obama founded his campaign on removing the influence of special interests. “They have not funded my candidacy, and they will not run my White House,” he has said repeatedly. To match this message immediately, Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, has a tidy little to-do list for the candidate who has promised unsurpassed ethical standards:

  • Disclose donors who gave less than $200.
  • Disclose the amounts and professions of bundlers who helped him raise gargantuan sums.
  • Disclose donors to his “Obama Transition Project.”
  • Disclose immediately online those who give to the inaugural committees.
  • Promise not to raise funds anonymously for the presidential library until the end of his term.

5. Hold one inaugural event outside Washington. Obama has billed his campaign as a movement that merely carries him along. To symbolically ratify the outside-the-Beltway power of the coalition he built, Obama should hold a pre-inauguration event somewhere beyond the Beltway—maybe in Iowa, where he started his campaign.

6. Meet with a cross-section of religious leaders. Obama believes in faith-based initiatives of the kind President Bush also championed. By holding a public meeting with leaders from all faiths, Obama could kick-start his policies in this area. He could also send an important message to those who didn’t vote for him that he is not the radical cultural liberal that Republicans tried to make him appear to be during the campaign.